Tod in Venedig, Opera by B. Britten

The novella Der Tod in Venedig (German for Death in Venice) was a milestone in German author Thomas Mann’s writing career. It exemplified his reflective, irreverent, philosophical and whimsical style, and it was the gateway to several of his later full-length works. The novella was famously turned into a successful movie by Italian director Luchino Visconti in 1971. Around the same time, Benjamin Britten began working on his opera that would premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival, England, on 16 June 1973. Volksoper Wien now puts on a German-language production of the operatic hit. Thus, Tod in Venedig brings Britten’s and Mann’s original creations together into a haunting and beautiful interpretation of the now-classic storyline.

Tod in Venedig centres on the ageing writer Gustav von Aschenbach. As he roams his native Munich and bemoans his fading inspiration, he gets the idea to go on a journey and hopefully replenish his creativity through this change of scenery. His sojourn takes him through Southern Europe and eventually to beautiful Venice. A stubborn gondolier brings him to the Lido hotel where Aschenbach first sees Tadzio, a Polish pubescent boy who immediately captivates the writer’s imagination. Over the next days, the elderly gentleman finds himself in the grips of a growing obsession with the handsome youth. Even though they do not exchange a single word, a fatal attraction develops in Aschenbach’s heart. While he sinks ever deeper into his infatuation, the German writer abandons his previously held principles of morality, dignity and caution. The tale barrels down to a sharp confrontation and a sudden, memorable finale.

A significant part of Tod in Venedig’s continued appeal comes from its autobiographical elements. Thomas Mann’s closeted homosexuality and his platonic attraction to adolescent youths mirror Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio clearly. Britten took this emotional basis and built upon it a modern-sounding and expressive operatic score. To underline the divide between the old man and his young love object, the composer made Tadzio and his family non-speaking dancers. This artistic decision leaves plenty of room for Aschenbach’s internal struggle to unfold and deliver maximum impact. With a German-language production, Volksoper Wien pays homage to Mann’s original text and lets Britten’s haunting music cast its spell – who will be the victim of Death in Venice after all?

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